Two players remain out because of post-concussion symptoms and one assistant coach position remains unfilled, but the Gophers women's hockey team starts its season this weekend. Minnesota is the host school for the four-team East/West Showcase at Ridder Arena.
Expectations for the Gophers are high as usual. They were picked to finish second in the WCHA preseason coaches poll behind defending NCAA champion Wisconsin and were ranked fourth in both major national polls. They play Union on Friday and Syracuse on Saturday in the showcase. St. Cloud State is the other West team in the field.
Nineteen of 23 players return from a 26-10-2 Gophers team that lost its final two games last season. Wisconsin beat the Gophers 5-4 in overtime of the title game of the WCHA tournament and Boston College beat them 4-1 in an NCAA regional.
"This is probably the deepest team that I have coached at the U in my five seasons," coach Brad Frost said. "We've got a great team on paper. But there is also many other strong teams in our league, let alone nationally."
Three of the Gophers' key players are goalie Noora Raty and defenseman Anne Schleper, two first-team all-WCHA picks, and forward Amanda Kessel, the conference's rookie of the year.
"[Raty] has won Olympic medals [for Finland]," Frost said, "she has been a two-time All-American and she is one of the best in the country. We feel very confident with her back there."
Schleper took the summer off from hockey after dealing with wrist issues the past two seasons. "I am healthy and I've got to stay there," she said. "That's half the battle in the collegiate game, keeping a healthy team."
Kessel had 19 goals and a team-high 50 points, but even she was hurting.
"What most people don't know she was nicked up for the majority of last year," Frost said. "You never saw Amanda playing at 100 percent."
Two players not healthy are junior goalie Alyssa Grogan and sophomore forward Ashley Stenerson. Grogan suffered a concussion 11 months ago, Stenerson a couple of months ago. "We will continue rehab for them and hope they get better," Frost said.
Frost has an opening on his staff because Natalie Darwitz resigned in early August. Darwitz, a former Gopher and Olympic star, accepted a job as the girls' hockey coach at Lakeville South.
"We have hired someone unofficially; I can't tell you who," Frost said. "They have been hired for about a month now but we are working on some visa issues to get her across the border."
That narrows it down to all the female hockey coaches in Canada.